As President Obama watches the returns this evening, it will be with the building resentment of an executive closer to the end than the beginning. From Politico’s profile of the president at the second midterm:
“Obama, for so long the man with the bright future, has hated being relegated to a sidelined pariah in the midterms—even if it is the inevitable lot of a second-termer with approval ratings hovering in the low 40s—according to a dozen current and former Obama advisers we spoke with in recent days. He both resents the narrative that he’s basically irrelevant and doesn’t much relish the fact that many of his longest-serving staffers, the remnant core of his once-buzzing and brash White House, are strapping themselves to ejector seats. More than anything, Obama’s loathing for Washington, an attitude that reads as ennui to outsiders, has hardened into a sullen resignation at being trapped in a broken system he failed to change, advisers told us.”
For all the talk that this midterm election was about nothing, 2014 really was just about one thing: Barack Obama’s failure to live up to his presidency’s promise in almost every domestic and foreign policy arena. The incredible revisionism at the heart of the media coverage we should expect to see from now to the end of this presidency and beyond is that Obama even tried to deliver on the change he promised, to fix the brokenness of a nation and a political and economic scene. Looking back, Obama’s delusion is readily apparent: he apparently believed not that he could change Washington, but that his mere presence would change Washington – that the fact of his election would roll back the waters and reveal a fundamental sea change in American history, such that the nation’s politics and culture would have no choice but to change in response.
When did President Obama ever attempt to govern as he preached? When did he ever put the effort into attempts at the grand bipartisan achievement? Where did he ever subjugate domestic political priorities to any decision about the future of the country? From Obamacare to Immigration to telling Eric Cantor Republicans would have no say in the stimulus because “I won”, his record is at odds with his promise. Obama’s only bipartisan achievement of significance – the budget control act – was marked by a series of public temper tantrums attacking the deal, rather than using it as a demonstration of how he could bring people together.
Now the president is full of resentment, fatalistic, irritated at being ignored or disrespected by his people and The People. But this doesn’t come from long years of attempts to bring the parties together to forge compromise – it comes from his realization that he’d rather golf than put up with the demands of the job. If Obama truly thought that politics only consists of getting elected, he was truly naïve about the demands of the presidency – just as he has been naïve about the nature of the Republican Party, conservatism and libertarianism, party and congressional politics, the public’s desire for wage growth and job security, even middle eastern dictators’ and terrorists’ assessment of their own interests.
The stunning part is the nature of this naïveté. It is not that it is the high-minded academic view of a cloistered college professor – it’s the naïveté of a dim-witted screenwriter, an acceptance of an beau ideal of the American presidency that is most recognizable as an invention of Aaron Sorkin, not a reflection of history. The president who walks into the room, says “I am the Lord your God”, and wins the argument. Only in the world of Andrew Shepard or Jed Bartlet does the president demolish his adversaries and win major political battles merely by reading his lines. But no matter: after he leaves office, we’ll be treated to an unprecedented revisionism tour, framing him as facing a political environment tougher than anything since Abraham Lincoln; how Republican opposition was all about racism, but he held back saying so to protect the American people from that fractious debate; how Hillary and the Clinton team was always working against him and key staffers were in cahoots with her all along. Get ready, because we’ll be hearing this for years.
For Obama, the presidency, to paraphrase Chesterton’s line about the Christian ideal, was not tried and found wanting – it was found difficult; and left untried. The problem begins with Obama’s vision of himself, a vision completely unlike the presidents who did not view themselves as world-altering historical figures from whom opponents cower and melt away, and toward whose will history bends. The idea that Obama attempted change and was trapped by existing unchangeable systems is nothing more than a comforting delusion, whispered by courtiers to the god-king who cannot understand why others did not bow down. He has become the worst kind of leader in American politics – a leader who feels the people no longer deserve him, and would prefer to dissolve them and elect another.